Keyloggers, i.e. software or hardware solutions that register keys pressed by users of various devices, today are mainly used by hackers – to collect passwords and other confidential data. Due to their nature, however, it is also clear that keyloggers are among the tools used by all spy organizations. In fact, the history of keyloggers had its origins in intelligence agencies, when the world was overwhelmed by the cold war between the allied countries of the US and the Eastern Bloc, headed by the USSR.
Keyloggers are older than Windows and even personal computers created for home use. According to current knowledge, the first keyloggers were developed by the Soviets, who in every way tried to outdo the United States. We’re talking about hardware keyloggers that were placed in IBM Selectric American diplomats typewriters to monitor secret letters and messages.
Such keyloggers were even found in typewriters at the American embassy in Moscow and at the consulate in Leningrad (today’s St. Petersburg). As the US NSA agency documents reveal, they remained undetected for years. Their presence was not known until 1984, after transporting all equipment to the territory of the USA as part of the GUNMAN project.
To the surprise of Americans, these keyloggers have been collecting valuable information for eight years, since 1976. The United States did not even expect this form of espionage (this was a complete novelty) and therefore counteracted only with standard eavesdropping tools. The GUNMAN project, which aimed to analyze typewriters in search of spy equipment, was initiated only because the state received an appropriate warning about them from the French. The French had previously found a keylogger at teletype at their embassy.
Soviet keyloggers could be seen in typewriters only after dismantling them, or on an x-ray. But how did these look and work?
Keyloggers took advantage of the fact that in the IBM typewriters the printing element were special balls. Before printing a given mark, those had to be positioned accordingly. Keyloggers monitored the movement of the mechanical arms that positioned these balls. These were attached inside a metal rod running inside the typewriter through its entire width and contained a magnetometer that measured the magnetic energy of the arms (this was different when the arms were positioned differently). The tools converted readings into electrical signals, stored a number of them, and then sent a radio signal to the Soviet listening post, where they were analyzed.
Interestingly, the Soviet keyloggers were constantly improved. In total, five generations were created. While the first used batteries, the others were already powered by the typewriter’s internal electrical system. In addition, the implants could be turned off remotely if eavesdroppers were arriving at an American facility. Another advantage was their ease and speed of assembly – this took only half an hour. Their detection was further hampered by the fact that they used the same frequency as local TV stations.
Today, hardware keyloggers are rare, because they have given way to more modern software versions that can be installed on the device of a potential victim remotely. Nevertheless, it all began with them.